You may be inclined to think that with the great skiing to be found in Banff National Park, that the area might lend itself well to some really great Heli-Skiing. You're not alone. Hans Gmoser, the pioneer of Heli-Skiing, thought the same thing and did a trial run at Tent Ridge just south of Banff before founding CMH. Turns out, the greatest heli-skiing on the planet is to be found on the western side of the Canadian Rockies and not in the Banff area. And here's why:
Last year Ken France, Area Manager at CMH Kootenay, wrote this blog article about the science of the snowpack in and around Revelstoke, BC. In the article, Ken describes the influence of the Pacific Ocean on the Caribou, Monashee, Selkirk and Purcell Mountain Ranges. Bascially, Ken walks us through a snow storm coming in off the ocean and losing most of it's moisture in the Coast Range and continuing East where the snow continues to fall, but in a much drier form.
Over in Banff, on the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains, the snow is just that much drier after losing the moisture. The 'sweet spot' appears to be right in the Interior Ranges in BC, just before the storms move east to Banff and the Alberta Rockies.
Heli-Skiers appreciate the natural spacing of the trees in the Interior Ranges. The moisture on the coast is great for tree growth - but this also means that the forests are very dense and not ideal for Heli-Skiing. But trees also provide an important visual reference for our pilots and guides. When the snow is falling hard, our pilots and guides naturally head for the trees and find some fantastic skiing in those naturally spaced forests.
Besides the fact that Parks Canada does not allow for recreational motorized vehicles in the National Park (this includes ATVs, dirt bikes and snowmobiles in addition to helicopters for skiing, snowboarding, and hiking), the flying conditions in the BC Interior Ranges are much better suited to heli-skiing. As Ken says, "Flying at 6,000' instead of 9,000' (like in the mountainous regions of the US and the Himalaya) dramatically increases performance." It's simply more efficient and economical to fly in BC.
When you combine the deep snow of the Interior Ranges with the lack of commerical operations and inhabitants with the natural features of the terrain of these mountains, it adds up to the world's greatest skiing. I asked Marty von Neudegg, CMH's Director of Marketing what makes the phyiscal geography of the Interior Range so perfect for skiing. Marty says 'The Interior Range offers wide open glaciers with consistant pitch and steep 1200-1400 metre tree decents unimpeded by cliff bands. And everything in between! The sheer variety of geography in this range makes it a skier's nirvana." Topher Donahue in Bugaboo Dreams says 'the terrain of the Cariboos is an amalgamation of all the different kinds of features that make up great skiing: the long, powder-cloaked old growth forests, steep serpentine ridgelines, friendly glades, rock-edged couloirs, undulating glaciers, planar mountain faces and chaotic combinations of all of the above."
Accessiblity (or lack thereof)
If these ranges were accessible by road and by car, they would be filled with ski resorts and lift lines. As it stands, helicopter access is the way to go. It keeps the numbers low so the impact is low. Banff National Park is a unique area of land preserved specifically for the use of all and has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The gorgeous Canadian Rockies have something for everyone - from skiers to shoppers and everyone in between. The Interior Ranges of BC have something for anyone willing to make their way into them, and great reward for those that do.
So, next time you consider heli-skiing in Banff, think again. Your best bet is to look west. It may be a little less accessible, but the best things in life often are.
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Photo: Heli-Skiing in the Interior Ranges of BC. While the coastal ranges of BC get more annual precipitation, it often falls as rain or wet, heavy snow. In the Interior Ranges it falls as the light, airy powder of which skiers dream.